Oddsmakers are skeptical of Syracuse’s ability to extend its run to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, making the Orange a double-digit underdog for Friday night’s regional semifinal against Duke.
But a certain Turner/CBS analyst who will work the game – and who played in three NCAA finals for the Blue Devils, winning two – is not so sure.
“Of course they have a shot,” Grant Hill said on Tuesday. “This is not your normal two-seed versus an 11-seed. Jim Boeheim, he just kind of works his magic. A team that was not really on everyone’s radar, had to win in the play-in game to actually get into the first round, he just has a way of getting his teams to be at their best when it matters.”
Hill cited the 2016 Orange, who made the Final Four as a No. 10 seed, as well as Boeheim’s knowledge of Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski, a longtime friend and USA Basketball colleague.
“I think the familiarity helps,” Hill said. “You look at Duke and their size and inside/outside kind of game, obviously the mystique of Coach K and all that comes with that, but they know this Duke team. They’ve played them [in the ACC] . . . This Syracuse team is more than capable of not just beating Duke but getting back to the Final Four.”
If Duke does the expected and advances, then wins the regional final, Hill will have a chance to relive his experience in the 2015 NCAAs, when in his first year as Steve Kerr’s successor on the Final Four telecast he called a Duke championship.
“That was the only time it was weird for me, in the final game [against Wisconsin] with maybe 2 ½ minutes left, and it dawned on me then, ‘Wow, Duke’s going to win this,’” he said. “That was the only time it was difficult, and that was just because the crowd was excited, you could see the celebration on the bench. And it was just like, OK, I did go to this school.
“Other than that, when the game starts you get lost in the game. You have a responsibility as a broadcaster to inform, to entertain . . . If Duke is doing something that’s not working or you have to be critical, you have a responsibility, so you do it, you say it.”
Hill has been surprised by his rapid rise in announcing. In 2014, his first year of retirement from the NBA, he was a studio analyst during the NCAAs. A year later, he was on the No. 1 team with Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery.
“I thought maybe studio work was the attractive job for me, but the idea of calling games, actual games, it just seemed too intimidating,” he said. “The thought of having to talk for two hours in a very uncontrolled environment where you’re reacting to what’s happening, that was intimidating.”
When Kerr left to coach the Warriors and Turner approached Hill, “I was just like, ‘I’m not ready to do this, I’m terrible,’” he recalled. “But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The tournament is why I fell in love with basketball . . . To be able to be there and basically call an NCAA championship, I’m always just in amazement and grateful to have this opportunity.”
If Duke and Kansas both win Friday in Omaha, it will set up only the schools’ third NCAA Tournament meeting – and first since 2003 – in the 27 years since they met in one of the most forgotten NCAA championship games.
It was in Indianapolis in 1991, Hill’s freshman year, a tournament widely remembered for Duke’s upset of UNLV in the semifinals, not its 72-65 victory over Kansas two days later.
“When you think about Duke and the championship run back in the early ’90s, it’s losing to Vegas in 1990 and coming back and redemption,” Hill said. “There are some people that think we beat UNLV to win the national title . . . But Kansas, they were a really good team. It was Roy Williams’ first Final Four, and I remember for us it was sort of coming down off of the high of beating UNLV and having 48 hours to prepare and then also not getting complacent.
“One of the things we talked about was, we have a week to prepare for UNLV. When we beat them, we have to be ready in 48 hours to play our next opponent. We thought it would be [North] Carolina. That’s who you wanted. We beat them twice in the regular season and they smacked us in the ACC Tournament final. We wanted another shot at Carolina.
“It was almost like you can’t set yourself up for a letdown. We took care of business, but a lot of people don’t remember that. Maybe people will talk about that if the two teams are fortunate to get to Sunday. It’s not like this heated rivalry. Duke hasn’t played Michigan in years, but there still seems to be a rivalry between the teams. I don’t sense that with Kansas and Duke.”